FL HUNTS, LLC v. Wheeler

Decision Date15 December 2009
Docket NumberNo. 2008AP2506.,2008AP2506.
Citation780 N.W.2d 529,2010 WI App 10
PartiesFL HUNTS, LLC and Field Logic, Inc., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Michael WHEELER, Defendant-Respondent.
CourtWisconsin Court of Appeals


On behalf of the plaintiffs-appellants, the cause was submitted on the briefs of Anna C. Mickelson of Hanft Fride, of Duluth, Minnesota.

On behalf of the defendant-respondent, the cause was submitted on the brief of Parrish J. Jones and Mitchell A. Routh of Knudson, Gee, Torvinen & Jones, S.C. of Superior.



Field Logic, Inc., and FL Hunts, LLC, (collectively, Field Logic) appeal an order dismissing their action against Michael Wheeler for lack of personal jurisdiction. We affirm.


¶ 2 Field Logic, Inc., a Wisconsin corporation, and FL Hunts, LLC, a Wisconsin limited liability company and Field Logic, Inc.'s wholly owned subsidiary, are headquartered in Superior, Wisconsin. Field Logic, Inc., produces and distributes hunting products, while FL Hunts provides wild game hunting services. Wheeler, a resident of Kansas, contacted Field Logic after using one of its products and inquired about the possibility of a sponsorship arrangement. On January 1, 2003, Field Logic hired Wheeler to guide whitetail deer and turkey hunts primarily in Kansas.

¶ 3 Wheeler visited Superior in 2004 and signed an employment agreement negotiated partially in Wisconsin.1 FL Hunts agreed to pay Wheeler a portion of any sponsorship money received from manufacturers for Wheeler's endorsement and use of the manufacturers' equipment during guided hunts. FL Hunts promised to continue sending sponsorship payments for three years following Wheeler's termination.

¶ 4 Field Logic filed a summons and complaint on November 5, 2007, alleging Wheeler breached the employment agreement by failing to return company financial information following his termination on December 31, 2006. Field Logic alleged the information was necessary to conduct a full accounting of sponsorship proceeds and meet its obligations under the employment agreement. The companies requested an order requiring Wheeler to render an accounting of all sponsorship payments he received during his employment, return company financial records and equipment, and make any payments required under the employment agreement.

¶ 5 Wheeler filed his answer and raised lack of personal jurisdiction as an affirmative defense. Wheeler also filed a motion to dismiss the action for lack of personal jurisdiction. Affidavits filed in response to the motion reveal the following undisputed facts. Wheeler traveled to Wisconsin at least once per year to discuss the operations in Kansas. At no time did Wheeler guide hunts in Wisconsin. While the agreement was in effect, Field Logic maintained regular contact with Wheeler via phone and e-mail. Throughout the course of the employment agreement, Field Logic shipped, from Wisconsin, hunting equipment manufactured by it to Kansas upon Wheeler's request. All the equipment remains, or was disposed of, in Kansas.

¶ 6 The circuit court held a nonevidentiary hearing on the motion to dismiss. Field Logic argued personal jurisdiction was appropriate under WIS. STAT. §§ 801.05(1)(d) and 801.05(5)(d).2 The circuit court rejected Field Logic's arguments and dismissed the action.3


¶ 7 Field Logic contends Wisconsin courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over Wheeler. Whether a court has personal jurisdiction is a question of law subject to our independent review. Druschel v. Cloeren, 2006 WI App 190, ¶ 6, 295 Wis.2d 858, 723 N.W.2d 430. The first step in determining whether a court has personal jurisdiction over a defendant involves analyzing whether Wisconsin's long-arm statute confers jurisdiction. Id. The interpretation and application of a statute are questions of law that we review de novo. Bushelman v. Bushelman, 2001 WI App 124, ¶ 11, 246 Wis.2d 317, 629 N.W.2d 795. The plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction under the long-arm statute. Lincoln v. Seawright, 104 Wis.2d 4, 9, 310 N.W.2d 596 (1981). We construe the statute liberally in favor of exercising jurisdiction. Id.

¶ 8 Our ability to liberally construe the long-arm statute is limited by fundamental principles of statutory construction. If the language of a statute is unambiguous, we will ordinarily stop the inquiry and apply the statute in accordance with its plain meaning. State ex rel. Kalal v. Circuit Court for Dane County, 2004 WI 58, ¶ 45, 271 Wis.2d 633, 681 N.W.2d 110. Statutory language will be given its common, ordinary, and accepted meaning. Id. "Statutory language is interpreted in the context in which it is used; not in isolation but as part of a whole; in relation to the language of surrounding or closely-related statutes; and reasonably, to avoid absurd or unreasonable results." Id., ¶ 46. "The court is not at liberty to disregard the plain, clear words of the statute." Id. (citation omitted).

¶ 9 On appeal, Field Logic contends personal jurisdiction is appropriate under two subsections of WIS. STAT. § 801.05, one conferring general personal jurisdiction and one conferring specific jurisdiction. "A court may exercise general jurisdiction over a defendant who has `continuous and systematic' contacts with the forum state. The question of whether a court may exercise specific jurisdiction is less encompassing—it focuses on `the relationship among the defendant, the forum, and the litigation.'" Harley-Davidson Motor Co. v. Motor Sport, Inc., 960 F.Supp. 1386, 1391 (E.D.Wis.1997) (citation and quotation omitted). Field Logic argues WIS. STAT. § 801.05(1)(d) confers general jurisdiction, while § 801.05(5)(d) confers specific jurisdiction. We consider each provision separately.

A. WISCONSIN STAT. § 801.05(1)(d)

¶ 10 Field Logic asserts the circuit court may exercise personal jurisdiction over Wheeler pursuant to WIS. STAT. § 801.05(1)(d), which provides:

A court of this state has jurisdiction. . . over a person . . .
(1) . . . In any action whether arising within or without this state, against a defendant who when the action is commenced:
. . . .
(d) Is engaged in substantial and not isolated activities within this state, whether such activities are wholly interstate, intrastate, or otherwise.

The circuit court interpreted the phrase "when this action is commenced" to restrict its analysis of Wheeler's contacts with Wisconsin to the time period between Wheeler's termination and the commencement of the action. Wheeler argues the circuit court properly limited the time frame within which his contacts with Wisconsin may be assessed. We disagree.

¶ 11 WISCONSIN STAT. § 801.05(1)(d) plainly requires the circuit court to analyze a defendant's contacts at the time the action is commenced. In concluding it had no jurisdiction, the circuit court looked back over a period of ten months to determine whether Wheeler had the requisite contacts. Although the court ultimately concluded he did not (and correctly, as we shall explain), it was error for the circuit court to analyze Wheeler's contacts preceding the commencement of the action— that is, the time "when a summons and a complaint naming the person as defendant are filed with the court." WIS. STAT. § 801.02.

¶ 12 This interpretation is consistent with both state and federal case law. In Sub-Zero Freezer Co. v. R.J. Clarkson Co., 159 Wis.2d 230, 234, 464 N.W.2d 52 (Ct. App.1990), we concluded a South Carolina defendant was engaged in isolated activities where the most recent contact of the defendant was a product order placed more than two years before the action was commenced. We reached that conclusion despite the fact that the defendant had an earlier business relationship with the plaintiff spanning thirteen years. Id. at 233, 464 N.W.2d 52. Furthermore, a federal court has recently rejected a plaintiff's attempt to invoke WIS. STAT. § 801.05(1)(d) in a factually similar situation:

The difficulty with Veolia's argument, however, is that it ignores the clear and unambiguous language of the statute that requires analysis of the defendant's activities in Wisconsin "when the action is commenced." Veolia has arguably shown that Malin was engaged in substantial and not isolated activities in Wisconsin when the claim arose, but that is not what the statute requires. So far as the record reveals, Veolia was Malin's only customer in Wisconsin. That relationship terminated, however, when the parties became embroiled in litigation in Louisiana in February of 2008, more than a year before Veolia commenced this action on April 6, 2009. And since Malin had no other customers in Wisconsin, it can hardly be said that it still had a substantial presence here after that time.

Veolia Es Special Servs. v. Malin Int'l Ship Repair & Drydock, Inc., No. 2009-363, slip op. at 5, 2009 WL 2240237 (E.D.Wis. July 24, 2009) (citation omitted).

¶ 13 The trial court reached the correct conclusion despite its misinterpretation of the long-arm statute. The court properly concluded Wheeler did not have the requisite contacts establishing personal jurisdiction. "Generally, a defendant has `substantial and not isolated' contacts with the state if the defendant `solicits, creates, nurtures, or maintains, whether through personal contacts or long-distance communications, a continuing business relationship with anyone in the state.'" Druschel, 295 Wis.2d 858, ¶ 7, 723 N.W.2d 430 (quoting Stauffacher v. Bennett, 969 F.2d 455, 457 (7th Cir.1992)). Specifically, we consider five factors when analyzing whether a defendant has substantial contacts: (1) the quantity of the contacts; (2) the quality of the contacts; (3) the source of the contacts and their connection with the cause of action; (4) the state's interest; and (5) the convenience of the parties. Id., ¶ 8. These factors are encompassed within...

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